An interview with Bob O’Brien / Haarlem, Rosenstock-Huessy Huis, tuesday June 7, 1994
In the extensive and well-documented account of Camp William James given by Jack J. Preiss in his book of the same name, the story is told of a meeting at the house of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy in 1938, previous to the foundation of the camp. The question was if the attempts to reform the Civil Conservation Corps, CCC, should be continued or if something new should be started up.
Two participants in the discussion, Frank Davidson en Bob O’Brien, had clearly different points of view. Preiss writes, “There were many shades of feeling, ranging from O’Briens almost solitary concern with Tunbridge and the ideal of work service, to Davidson’s conviction that some sort of agreement with the Department of Agriculture on a practical basis was necessary.”
According to Preiss’ account, Bob O’Brien states in the discussion that followed: “I am in complete disagreement. I don’t want to reform, I want to create.”
Nowadays, Bob O’Brien lives in the Rosenstock-Huessy Huis in Haarlem, much older but lively, creative as ever and travelling all around the globe to contribute to that one ideal he never abandoned, the voluntary work camp movement. In this interview he tells about his meetings with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Camp William James, and post-war work camps.
“At the time that I was at Dartmouth,” says Bob, “there was a literary club which received financial support so that it could pay a modest stipend to literary figures of some vote to come to speak to us. A significant event for me occurred in 1938 when W.H. Auden came to speak.
In the course of his speech Auden suddenly was groping for a word and there was an awkward silence in the room. Suddenly, from the back of the room the exact word that Auden was groping for was offered in a heavy German accent. Like others in the room I was deeply impressed to hear a German coming up with the word that one of the leading poets in the English language had not been able to find. I leaned over to the person sitting beside me and asked: ‘Who was that?’ The answer was whispered, ‘Rosenstock-Huessy’.
What did he teach at Dartmouth College?
Bob O’Brien: “O, he taught Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy! When I studied in Dartmouth he had just come from Harvard University where he had been active in at least six different departments. The conventional academics where contemptuous of him. For them he was sort of a bull in a china shop. Harvard really gave a sigh of relief when he left. They had urged him to make up his mind asking him: What are you, a philosopher, a sociologist, an historian? He was put into the philosophy department and was really an authority there but, of course, didn’t teach Plato and Aristotle. He did, however, have many sociological insights about our present predicament.
I selected a course with Rosenstock, I believe it was Philosophy 9 – The Communication of Thought. One of my first readings was A Classic and A Founder, written by Rosenstock.
He was marvellous as a teacher, excellent and eloquent. But I did not really come close to him. He strengthened the spirit, but there was no personal relation. He was an authority. What later happened, during the days of Camp William James, was an entirely different experience. At the time in Dartmouth there was a gap between the professors and the students. Rosenstock-Huessy was an awesome figure.”
When did you meet him in a more personal way?
“In my life I got an extraordinary chance to encounter this man. It started with a close friend of mine who played the flute. He told me that the Vermont State Symphony orchestra was to give a concert in a town somewhere in Vermont and that he was a member of that orchestra. I went to that concert and actually saw Vermont for the first time in my life. I liked the state very much and after graduation I announced at home that I would go hitchhiking through Vermont during the summer.
On the first day of that trip, I was picked up by a farmer. We were somewhere in the middle of Vermont and I had no idea of where he was going. Then I asked him if there were some jobs available in his town. Yes, he said, there is a lot of summer work to be done, mostly haying. The inhabitants of the region were mostly old farmers and their wives, the children had gone to the cities to study and work. So the man brought me to a farmer and he said: ‘I understand you’re looking for work. How much do you want?’ Now, that’s a typical Vermont question! I was not prepared for that possibility, and I was relieved when he said: ‘One dollar a day, room and board.’
The couple really needed help. They had a small farm of some eighteen or twenty cows and the family had been in that little town for generations. Then I wrote to my young friend, the musician. Two weeks later I came out of the barn one evening to milk the cows and saw someone on a bicycle wheeling into our yard. It was my friend. ‘You wrote such a nice letter,’ he said, ‘that I wanted to see the place for myself. When you’ve finished this job, can you get me a job too?’ I told him to wait a few minutes. He was hired by farmers half a mile away. These people were 75 years of age and immediately took him up into their family as if he were their son.
Then a week or so later three former classmates came along in an automobile which one of them had got for his graduation. They were on their vacation and in the car were their golf clubs and tennis rackets. All of them had been accepted to do graduate work at other universities in the fall. They looked at me and thought it hilarious to see me farming. None of them could imagine me at a farm picking up hay. I found three extra pitchforks and they helped to fill the horsedrewn wagon. Then came the same question and the same answer. They were taken to neighboring farms and were hired. So then we were five guys. A sixth one joined us and that was how the Dartmouth Group came into existence.
Even at that time there was no connection with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, although the last fellow knew him very well. His name was Arthur Root. He was a brilliant student and during his senior year he had been working exclusively with Rosenstock-Huessy. Now we all lived on farms with outdoor toilets etcetera and things like laundry were really a problem. Then by accident we encountered Mrs. Rosenstock-Huessy and she invited us to use her washing machine. So we came closer and closer to the family, although my personal relationship still was not very close. I still was too much in awe of him as a teacher.
The Rosenstocks had a friend, Dorothy Thompson, who was one of the best known columnists in the US. She wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. Dorothy Thompson had been in Germany during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, but had been sent out of the country by Hitler and declared persona non grata. She and her husband had a summer home in Vermont and she was there on vacation. We were invited to her house and she wrote a column in the Herald Tribune. Later on she told us that Mrs. Roosevelt had read it.
So out of this very unsophisticated experience we became known even to the wife of the president. Our visits to the house of Rosenstock-Huessy became more frequent, and we met many of his interesting friends. There was a student from Harvard University, Frank Davidson, who had become interested in the German work service which Rosenstock-Huessy had founded in the 1920s. He went to see Rosenstock-Huessy. Now with these camps something had happened which I have only from hearsay but which has never been contradicted. Hitler had taken over the idea of youth service and turned around its intentions by 180 degrees making it the opposite of what Rosenstock-Huessy had begun. That was a monstrous crime. What had begun as a way of freeing youth became a way of brainwashing them.
Frank Davidson persisted, and Rosenstock-Huessy said: ‘What you should do is join the CCC. After one year, when you come back, I’ll talk to you!’ So he entered the CCC as an ordinary enrollee. He began writing reports on his experiences on how much of the life of the boys in the CCC was wasted and how ordinary human principles were totally ignored.
Davidson met with the boys working on the farms and they discussed how to improve the CCC camps. About a 100,000 of these CCC-members could be employed in Vermont and salvage rural life. Gradually, the idea rose of an experiment with work camps for boys from all walks of life, where all youth could get the opportunity to contribute to the future of America.
Davidson got a job in Washington and there he was in a position to discuss the idea of a special leadership training camp where gifted youth could get the necessary preparation for higher responsibility. Davidson and the six boys in Vermont contributed to the foundation of this camp but no one of them thought that their lives would become deeply involved in this.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, rumors began in the Vermont town where the Dartmouth group was working that they were nazis. They came under attack. There has always been a strong anti-intellectual tendency in American public life which arouses the suspicion of simple people. Perhaps jealousy plays a part. Anyway, people began to spread the story that Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was a nazi and that the group in Vermont was preparing an invasion by Germany. They were plotting to blow up bridges, etcetera. Now in some way Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy himself helped make the ground ripe for this because of the impression he gave riding around on horseback and speaking with a heavy German accent.
We invited Dorothy Thompson to come to Tunbridge in Vermont, the place where we worked and to speak at an open meeting. 500 people showed up and listened to her. She stated that she had met just a group of ordinary college boys who were having a tremendous experience and that she had been inspired by them. The crowd became so enthusiastic that it seems hardly possible even today. Her speech swept everybody. She strongly addressed the people at the meeting and they were full of the experience. At the end people said: ‘What can we do?’ And Dorothy Thompson answered: ‘Help these boys and support the idea of a leader training camp for the CCC!’
A petition addressed to president Roosevelt was written and hundreds of people signed it. One man said that the president was too busy to read it, but Dorothy Thompson then answered: ‘I have a meeting with the president next monday.’ Roosevelt was contemplating a third term as president at that time which was a complete break with the U.S. political tradition. He thought it was necessary because of the war situation. He wanted Dorothy Thompson’s support because she was writing for a leading Republican newspaper. She would then give him this petition. And she did. Eventually, the president signed an order which set up the CCC leadership camp.
At that point we felt that our work had been done. Then Rosenstock-Huessy called us together at his home in Norwich. When we arrived he was not there. We all gathered on the driveway before his house and when he came he passed us without speaking a word. We followed him into the house and there he began to speak. ‘I have something to say to all of you’, he started. ‘From this moment on I am your temporary commanding officer! No one of you is to leave the group at this moment. It is of crucial importance that all of you stay if we want this leadership camp to succeed. You must all postpone your academic appointments for the fall.’
We all sat quivering, and Rosenstock-Huessy was as serious as he could be. There was no joking and no arguing.
Within a month’s time all members of the camp were designated. In order to understand the situation it is essential to know that we were actually composed of two groups. On the one hand there were the students from Harvard who had worked in the CCC and who had experienced the army leadership there. On the other hand there were us, the Dartmouth boys who had been working on farms.
We thought the Harvard group was too much involved in ‘real politics’. They were used to dealing with high officials. We did not really overcome our differences until we got the opportunity to live together for two weeks in the middle of winter under extremely difficult conditions. There were 25 of us, living in very primitive circumstances, without running water and heating. But Rosenstock-Huessy came as well and he lived with us. He guided and inspired us and in the end we became a group. He had a tremendous gift of getting very diverse people to become a group.
He brought in a former British army officer, a colonel during World War One who led us at night skiing with lighted torches. He taught us dirty army songs. All these things melted the walls between us. And after two weeks we were ready to live and die for Camp William James. It was December and some people went back home to celebrate Christmas. But some of us were so inspired that we did not go back to see our families. I was one of those who stayed. We kept the fires burning in spite of the incredibly harsh physical conditions.
On the first of January fifty people from all walks of life, black and white, from reform schools or broken families, came to the camp. The people selected were those who were considered to have the capabilities to become the new leaders if they had the right preparation. Davidson and his friends had kept an eye out for those people during their period in the CCC. And besides there were many who applied for a membership. The group had become known from coast to coast in America. People came and wanted to join.”
What meaning had William James’ essay ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’ for you as participants in Camp William James?
“We read it, of course. It was our bible. And we read ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ by G.K. Chesterton. After the first World War many British soldiers came back in a very cynical mood. The country had lost almost a whole generation. Those who had survived were looking for something different, a new society. Many of them latched onto marxism. No one wanted the old society which had brought so much agony and death.
In his ballad, which was about 150 pages, Chesterton had written about the successive periods in English history. He showed that there had been times of strong pessimism when the outlook for the people seemed almost hopeless. He showed that those were the right conditions for a new era to begin. History needs ups and downs. Without downturns it is impossible to conceive something new.
In the ballad there was the Christian message that God will not abandon mankind, even though we live in darkness and despair. Chesterton rescued an element in English life. He helped those who were challenged by Marx to sustain their own tradition. We were also in a period of despair. Fascism challenged Europe and democracy seemed not to be capable of resisting. It looked as if nobody could stop Hitler. Some expected that fascism would take root in South America and enter into the US from there. Some of us learned Chesterton by heart.
Have you been able to continue working in this spirit after the war?
“When I went home after the war I was pretty depressed. It had been such an intensive experience. I had lost comrades in the war, we had seen stupidity and cowardice. At the time I was in the Separation Centre, where the militaries separated from service, I had one of those typical chance encounters which have always been so important in my life. I ran into a former Dartmouth student, J.C. Myers. He had been the ace of aces of the U.S. Air Force, and had shot down more planes than anyone.
After the war the Air Force became independent and it needed all the institutions which belong to such independency. One of them was a program for the education of officers. In my talk with Myers I was poring out my depression about the quality of officers. I had seen poor leadership which cost thousands of lifes. Further, many officers did not understand fascism. Myer told me that the Air Force planned to establish a new training college for officers which by then was called Air University. He advised me to write, offering to help set up an education system. I remember that we had drunk too many martinis. I struggled back to my quarters where I wrote a long letter to the commanding general of Air University. A few days later I received a message that he would be glad to have me. And so it came that I stayed seven years more in the Air Force. Altogether I served for eleven years. So for me, after the war means 1953. I served through the Korean War.
The general in Air University was very kind. I never met anybody like him, I must say. I told him about Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, and said that he had to be involved if we wanted to create an exemplary educational institute. He was interested. I went to Vermont, picked up Rosenstock-Huessy and flew him in a medium-sized bomber to Alabama. He spoke to faculty and to the students and through him some developments were influenced but he was never really appreciated or fully understood.
In 1953 it was a long time since I had been a civilian. I looked into the work camp world. Especially active were the quaker volunteer groups. Then I heard about an experimental pilot project concerning rural reconstruction in Mexico. It resulted from the second Unesco World Conference which had been held in Mexico City
The ‘Ensayo Piloto Mexicano’ was prepared for the International Assembly of UNESCO as a theoretical approach to development. It was received with so much enthusiasm that the Mexican government then decided to give it a practical test and designated an area in the western state of Nayaret for its implementation.
The government assigned Mario Aquilera, a high official in the Department of Education, to prepare it. His wife was a quaker. A rather primitive area which has just been connect to the rest of the country by a highway was designated for technical assistance. The land was communally owned. People had moved there and ‘put down their stake’, to claim pieces of land. This resulted in a completely anarchic scene. People built their houses where streets had been laid out. In some cases cattle had to go through the kitchen of neighbours to reach the pastures.
The authorities had a very remarkable principle. Mario Aquilera said: ‘We want to create a new type of person in this region and we need international volunteers to help us so that the new society will be a joint effort.’ I must say that this influenced me maybe even more than Camp William James.
There were two work camps, one for men and one for women, with all together about fifty people. We worked in an area of about forty square kilometres along the Santiago River. Aquilera ordered first to create a physical plan, and secondly to relocate the houses in a new, better planned way. Roads had to be constructed, stores to be built, order had to be created out of chaos.
There were all together some eighty villages in the area. One of these was selected for the programme which became a tremendous success. The local people were very enthusiastic. And Aquilera was everywhere, talking, directing. Things worked just like in Camp William James. The end of the pilot project came when Aquilera protested against a provincial governor who demanded additional fees from the local people which he put into his own pocket. Aquilera protested and was removed from his post. Then the project was morally destroyed. I left after eight or nine months and was very disappointed.”
What is the contribution from the quakers to the work camps?
“The quakers had a tradition which differed very much from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s viewpoints. First of all, they were non-violent, which cannot be said of Rosenstock-Huessy. And Huessy had a much profounder appreciation of history. In his view, each millennium created new institutions as a response to the needs of the different periods. The university was something quite new in the time of Abilard. It came suddenly forth out of nothing as if it just had to come. The idea of it was that different points of view could be presented to the students. In the same way, during the first millennium, the monasteries were created as an answer to the needs of that period.
Nowadays, we are again entering a new millennium. The question is what our creative response will be towards the conditions we live in, the despair of our time. We will need the same intellectual and spiritual strength as Aquilera. Wholly new institutions will arise whose dimensions we cannot see, that will unite the family of men of this planet; institutions which are based on deeds and not on words. Aquilera said: ‘We have to work elbow to elbow. We must establish new relations, friendship and understanding.’ I believe that universal voluntary service will be the basis of a new institution which will be the driving power of the next millennium.
Working together is of vital importance. The work camp movement started in 1920 in Bilthoven. It was the initiative of a Swiss pacifist, Pierre Cérésole. In the course of a meeting of European pacifists one person said: ‘We have been here for three days and we have done nothing but talking.’ Cérésole then reacted: ‘That is what we want. We must do something!’ This is how the first work camp started. They went to a village near Verdun, a place where six to seven hundred thousand soldiers had died. French and German soldiers were recruited to rebuild a village that had been destroyed.
Cérésole moved from place to place, wherever a disaster had occurred. He was greatly influenced by William James. The original work camp organisation, Service Civil International, now has 26 branches.
But they have lost something of the spirit of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and of William James. During the period up to the second world war they were under the influence of William James, but in recent years they primarily offer inexpensive vacation experiences for students from colleges and universities. Today, we have to look further and wider. We need in peacetime experiences that offer a moral equivalent to war.
The best project today, which comes closest to this principle, is a work camp in the Croatian town of Pakrac where 150 international volunteers are trying to build up a village that has been heavily damaged in the war. They are living primitively in harsh conditions, sleeping on the ground with little shelter. The local population consists primarily of women, elderly people, children and refugees. The men have been drafted. There are no hospitals and no schools. Support to the project has been given by the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.”
William James asks for an obligatory service for young people as an alternative to military draft. Should such a service be obligatory of voluntarily?
“That is a question which must be taken up here. William James was formulating his ideas during the period 1906 to 1910, before the First World War and, more importantly, before the rise of fascism, which he did not witness. I cannot believe that he would have supported the idea of ‘a conscription of the whole youthful population’ if he had seen the perverse effect on youth of Hitler’s youth corps.
Rosenstock-Huessy, who experienced fascism at first hand, wrote in his seminal letter to Dan Goldsmith of March 4, 1945, that ‘the service can have life simultaneously on a global and a local scale. The need for this wide range lies in the fact that all social groups smaller than the nation – families, villages, countries, sections – have been sucked dry by the nation.’
On page 90 of Planetary Service he wrote, ‘… the service of free souls could sink to the level of being a mere assignment.’
That is why I believe that we need a new, autonomous institution of planetary, voluntary service, which will take its place besides the other great autonomous institutions: the Law, the Church, the universities, etc. Government has become bloated. Rosenstock was profoundly right. It has sucked dry all the smaller groups, like he said.”
But what about the costs of such a service? How can we guarantee that it will possess the necessary continuity?
“To me, that is the challenge we have to face. Whatever the source of funds, the new Planetary Service must retain its autonomy. Perhaps far-sighted political leaders will give funds to the new institution, just as King Henry VI of England gave funds for some of the new colleges at Cambridge, without these fledgling places becoming dominated by government. An example is King’s College, founded A.D. 1441.
Another great sentence from Rosenstock’s letter to Dan Goldsmith states, ‘The true experience of the work service must be in how to rebuild a community.’ I have probably read The Christian Future thirty times in the last about forty years, but only after I had lived in this community did my readings of it reveal how profoundly Rosenstock felt about ‘rebuilding community’. On page after page he refers to that as our primary task.
In my ongoing discussions with some friends from the Dutch branch of SCI, we have been suggesting a marriage between the work camp movement and the community movement. Existing intentional communities would offer space to groups of volunteers. From these bases volunteers could tackle the social and environmental damage inflicted by uncontrolled economic exploitation. The communities would not only provide shelter, cooperation, concern and affection to the groups of volunteers, but then would also keep continuity alive, for volunteers service for a limited period of time and there is a need for linkage in the work that is being done. The volunteers, mostly young, with their enthusiasm and imagination, would be a constant source of spiritual vitality to the communities. We have called such communities Planetary Posts and we envisage such bastions as strengthening the new society, just as Outposts secured the unorganized Wild West in the U.S. during the 19th Century or as monasteries stabilized the wilds of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire.”
Published in: ‘Mitteilungen der Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy Gesellschaft, 1999’